“A ‘real’ dystopic future”: An Interview with Miriam Bird Greenberg

by Corey Van Landingham, Poetry Co-Editor

We were lucky enough to be able to ask Miriam some questions about her poem “It’s Hard to Forget,” which will run in the forthcoming issue of Sycamore Review. Check out Miriam talking about pica, world-making, and her manuscript All night in the new country.

miriam-bird-greenberg-300x196Sycamore Review: Where did the material for”It’s Hard to Remember” come from? Is it part of a larger project, and, if so, how does this particular poem fit into that larger scope?

Miriam Bird Greenberg: This is part of a book-length manuscript of poems called All night in the new country which forms the loosely interlocking narrative of a woman fleeing unnamed upheaval a hundred years hence, partially set in the rural dystopian future of the East Texas Piney Woods. A historically diverse and lawless region, in the past the Piney Woods was a place where freed and escaped slaves made their lives, American Indians migrated to avoid white settlers, lawbreakers hid from the law, and many others thrived. I grew up not far from the edge of the Piney Woods, and have always been fascinated by Texas history, in particular because my mother’s family settled in northeast Texas in 1846 (they traveled along the Texas Road in a Conestoga wagon, one of those iconic oxen-drawn covered wagons you see all the time in westerns), and built a two-room cabin with a dog-run between for air circulation. Over the next hundred and fifty years, it grew into a sprawling ramshackle house filled with generations of blacksmithing tools and bridge scorecards, and two colonies of bees took up residence between the first and second floors. My own childhood was dense with this history woven into the everyday: it’s an imagery and ancestry that are particularly powerful for me, and much of my writing over the past eight years has striven to keep alive the fading cultural histories of rural American life. In my most recent draft of All night in the new country, this poem comes toward the end of the first section, which is set in a ‘real’ dystopic future; in the second section the speaker passes into the afterlife, peopled with ghosts and minor gods. There’s a third section that’s in serious flux, for now it’s a contrarian play-in-verse, set in the afterlife.

I really enjoyed thinking back over the ‘archeology’ of specific moments in this poem, so though it’s an exercise in list-making (as the poem itself is, too), I’ll recreate those strata for you!

a)     When I wrote this poem I’d just been reading about pica, a nutrient deficiency that causes people to crave ashes and clay during pregnancy;

b)    Occasionally as a fluke or because of insufficient calcium in their diets, hens lay shell-less eggs encased in that thin membrane typically between the shell and the white of the egg;

c)     In the old days hobos and travelers prided themselves on hand-carved spoons, tin cans with chicken bone handles bound with bailing wire, and other brilliant and inspired examples of jury-rigging (though for what it’s worth, I run into travelers with handmade or much-modified gear fairly often);

d)    Finally, though swaybacked falling-down barns populated the countryside where I grew up (and for a few years appeared in so many of my poems that workshop-mates in grad school made fun of me for it), this particular barn after a storm is with a nod to a lovely, savvy former student of mine, Claire Woodard, whose poem Squall also ends with a barn after storm.

SR: I love how you mix the newly-quotidian and all of its minutiae with the larger theme of disaster. It is, to follow the title and the first line, hard to forget such lovely images like the “pale shell-less eggs,” the “aging ox-drawn plough.” These details evoke a very specific world, one that is at times both familiar and foreign. I’m wondering, then, if there is ever any difficulty in rendering (what seems to be) a post-apocalyptic world. How much familiar ground do you allow the reader? What does this setting allow you to do as a poet that you couldn’t otherwise?

MBG: For me, the landscape of post-apocalypse is particularly rich in possibility for world-making, and for exploring the destabilized space of old technologies and ways of living as they meet the new (and vice versa). Being able to imagine a world, then move around in it and discover how it’s made—hen nesting in its darkened rafters, divination by dental extraction—is one of the most thrilling parts of writing for me. As a reader, science fiction and speculative lit are especially exciting in a similar way—Neal Stephenson and China Mieville are of course important figures in bridging the archaic-meets-futuristic in fiction, but the world-making process is also such fertile ground for encompassing the intersections and faceting of race, class, gender, sexuality, culture, context unburdened by the constraints of “this world believability.” (Here I’m thinking of Marge Piercy, Octavia Butler, and of course Ursula LeGuin; Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren, and the book-length poem The Descent of Aletteby Alice Notley.) Though my own writing barely begins to approach these thrilling and complicated questions—and is often no more political than all poetry inherently is (existing as it does almost entirely off the capitalist radar)—I enjoy being able to work in a space that exists somewhat outside the landscape of contemporary American culture, while still evoking its imageries and histories, if selectively. With these things in mind, I’m also concerned with sensitively depicting a world underscored by instability and scarcity that’s (mostly) beyond my lived experience without fetishizing it, and with becoming more attuned to the failed-and-made-anew social contracts borne of disaster that form the crux of psychological dramas amid social upheaval. Finally, I appreciate that the post-apocalypse allows me to write in a unified first person narrative voice situated firmly beyond autobiography—relative to other genres, poets (and particularly women poets, and certainly anyone even more Otherable in majority culture) are more subject to the interrogative gaze—and I appreciate that fewer readers, in an era of poetry arising out of Confessionalism, will mistake my speakers’ voices as ones that speak for me.

SR: The final image of the pistol “untouched by turmoil” seems both hopeful and haunting. As in, there are parts of the old world preserved; there are places a pistol wasn’t needed. But, at the same time, it seems to seal a particular fate for this speaker: one where a gun cannot protect oneself against such drastic change. One where such familiar objects become obsolete. How do you see this final image?

MBG: Let me first say that often the artist is a less effective critic of their own work than others!

Perhaps it’s a bit of sinister foreshadowing: worse is yet to come. It’s also an almost insignificant item in a world gone so far to hell that what more, really, can one pistol do?

SR: What are you reading right now that excites you? What book or books would you tether to your body to take with you to read “after the waters receded?”

MBG: I just read Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o a couple days ago. Set in a post-colonial dictatorship in the contemporary African country of Aburiria, which is something like Kenya, it’s a sprawling plot-driven folktale-meets-satire-meets-the-familiar world of unerringly benevolent sorcerers who carry cell phones. One review I read likened it to an African “Pynchon meets Confederacy of Dunces.” I also just finished Black Flags & Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, & The Common Ground Collective by scott crow. It’s an insightful and eminently readable account of the founding of Common Ground, the community organization that mobilized to serve meals, establish and staff community medical clinics, and facilitate massive home repair projects in the first days after Katrina—long before FEMA and the Red Cross began to venture, tentatively and selectively, into New Orleans at all, much less poor communities of color.

I love the nuance, humor, and cultural aptitude of Peter Hessler’s narrative nonfiction about contemporary China—particularly Oracle Bones. Lately I’ve been rereading pages out of Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line, a hilarious Brezhnev-era train journey/drunken satire about love, loss, and Communist-era bureaucracy complete with charts and graphs of the drinking predilections of his alcoholic colleagues on the road crew. Poetry-wise, I’d bring Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, Frank Stanford’s The Light The Dead See which I’ll love forever for his sinister bayou litanies (despite the fact that there isn’t a woman in all his poems that doesn’t serve a solely ornamental purpose), plus Komunyakaa and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Probably Vineland by Pynchon, and a handful of Maxine Hong Kingston (my favorite is China Men but I love them all), and the graphic novel Capacity by Theo Ellsworth. I might bring David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, but mostly because I still haven’t read it and really ought to, even/especially after the fall of civilization!

Miriam Bird Greenberg has been awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and a James Michener Fellowship from the Michener Center for Writers. She lives in Berkeley where she teaches English as a Second Language, collaborates with the performance group Odyssey Works, and listens to railroad scanners.